How to Fill Out Your March Madness Bracket

Hey y’all-one of my favorite times of the year is underway. After being cancelled due to COVID  last year, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, aka “March Madness,” is back! The brackets just came out today. I look forward to filling out a bracket every single year, and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament is one of my absolute favorite weekends. There’s basketball on from noon to midnight for four days straight, and it’s when the unexpected underdog victories (aka “upsets”) happen. If you’re wanting to join the Madness, this post is all about how to fill out your March Madness bracket.

Fun Fact-I originally published this post on March 9, 2020, just a few days before the world turned upside down due to the coronavirus pandemic. So I made a few updates and I’m re-sharing this year.

Even if you’re not a sports fan, this post is for you! Hopefully my bracket tips will benefit you if you’re participating in your office or friend group’s pool. And if you’re someone who groans every time your significant other grabs the remote and wants to watch sports, hopefully this will make it more fun!

How to fill out a March Madness bracket

(The one silver lining of March Madness being cancelled last year is that my Tar Heels wouldn’t have made it into the tournament anyways. Luckily they had a better season this year, and will be playing in March Madness this year. I got this photo opp with Rameses at a UNC game in late 2019. I’m pretty sure it’s the last time I got my picture taken with a mascot. Here’s to hoping I can get more mascot hugs and pics later in 2021 )

March Madness Basics

Before I get into my tips on how to fill out your March Madness bracket, I thought it would be a good idea to share some basics for those of y’all who aren’t familiar with sports. Each year, 68 teams compete in the Division I NCAA Tournament, aka “March Madness.” The bottom eight teams participate in four “play-in” games, and the winners of those games advance to the main bracket of 64 teams. However, you don’t have to wait until the “First Four” play-in ages are complete to fill out your bracket.

Four Regions

The NCAA bracket of 64 teams consists of four quadrants, known as “regions.” Each region has 16 teams, and the winner of each region after two weekends of play advances to the Final Four. There’s an East Region, South Region, Midwest Region, and West Region. Typically, games for the first weekend of the tournament are played all over the country. Therefore, there’s not really any geographic significance to the bracket regions until the second region. Due to COVID, all NCAA tournament games will be in the Indianapolis area for the entire duration of the tournament. However, the sections of the bracket still have the East, South, Midwest, and West regional designations.

March Madness Schedule and Format: Round 1 and 2

The first weekend of the NCAA tournament consist of two rounds. Traditionally, the first round is on a Thursday and Friday, during which 64 teams play a total of 32 games. By the end of Friday night’s games, 32 teams remain. Then it’s on to the second round for Saturday and Sunday. Over these two days, 32 teams play a total of 16 games. At the end of the first weekend, 16 teams remain (four from each region) and advance to the “Sweet 16” Due to COVID, the 2021 NCAA Tournament schedule is pushed back by one day. The first round games will be on Friday and Saturday (March 19-20), and the second round games will be on Sunday and Monday (March 21-22)

March Madness Schedule & Format: Sweet 16 and Elite 8

During a typical season, the second weekend of the NCAA tournament kicks off with the Sweet 16 round on Thursday and Friday. At this point, games are only taking place at the four designated regional sites, with four teams playing at each site. Thus, the Sweet 16 games are also known as “regional semifinals.” The eight teams that remain after the Sweet 16 games are known as the “Elite 8,” and they collectively play in four regional championship games on Saturday and Sunday of this second weekend. At the end of weekend two, only four teams of the original 64 remain, and they move on to the “Final Four.”

However, In 2021 all the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games will be in the Indianapolis area rather than regional sites. In addition, the Sweet 16 games will be on a Saturday & Sunday (March 27-28) instead of the traditional Thursday & Friday format. Then the Elite 8 games will be on a Monday & Tuesday (March 29-30) instead of the usual Saturday & Sunday.

March Madness Final Four and National Championship

Next to a national championship, the Final Four is what every team aims for each basketball season. Final Four weekend kicks off on Saturday night, where the four teams play in two national semifinal games. The winner of each game advances to the national championship game on Monday night. These two final teams square off in the championship game. One emerges victorious, and is crowned the new national champion! Confetti drops from the ceiling of the arena, and the team cuts down the nets and gets their trophy. In 2021 the Final Four and National Championship rounds will retain their usual Saturday & Monday schedule (April 3 & 5).

Then it’s time for one of my favorite traditions, “One Shining Moment.” CBS puts together a video montage of big moments throughout the entire tournament. “One Shining Moment” is a special song that serves as the musical backdrop for this montage. Some people may think it’s corny, but I love it. Regardless of who the national champion is every year, I tear up, and have zero shame!

NCAA Tournament Seeds

Now that I’ve gone through the schedule and format of the NCAA tournament, I need to explain the concept of tournament “seeds, because this plays a big role in how you fill out your bracket. As I mentioned earlier, there are 16 teams in each region. Each region’s team is assigned a seed number 1 through 16. The strongest team in each region has the 1 seed, and the least strong team in each region has the 16 seed. Note that when the tournament committee prepares the bracket, they place the top four teams in the country as the number 1 seed in four different regions. Then the next four strongest teams in the country are the number 2 seeds in the four regions. This seeding process continues all the way down to the number 16 seeds.

How to Fill Out Your March Madness Bracket

Now that I’ve described the basic format of the NCAA tournament, now it’s time for a few tips on how to fill out your March Madness bracket! Even though there are some changes in schedule and location in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the basic principles of bracketology remain the same.

The seeds I discussed in the previous section are important because they determine the team match-ups for the first round of the tournament, In each region, the following seeds play one another in the first round:

  • 1 vs. 16
  • 2 vs. 15
  • 3 vs. 14
  • 4 vs. 13
  • 5 vs. 12
  • 6 vs. 11
  • 7 vs. 10
  • 8 vs. 9

Tips for Making Your First Round Picks in Your March Madness Bracket

Now, your intuition might tell you to simply advance the higher ranked (i.e. lower number seed) on to the second round in your bracket. However, the outcome of March Madness is not based on basic logic and probability. Anything can happen, and the first weekend of the tournament is definitely a time to expect the unexpected! One important aspect of how to fill out your March Madness bracket is predicting which unexpected events are most likely to occur! The first round is notorious for “upsets,” which is when a team with a significantly higher number seed beats a team with a low number seed. Here are a few pointers for picking your first round winners in your bracket:

  • In the history of the NCAA Tournament, there’s been only one number 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 seed, and that didn’t happen until 2018, when University of Virginia lost to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers. So it’s a pretty safe bet to have all four number one seeds advance to the second round.
  • It’s also very rare for a number 15 seed to beat a number 2 seed. However, it does happen! I definitely wasn’t disappointed to see #2 Duke go down against #15 Lehigh back in 2012! But for the purpose of your bracket, I recommend advancing all four of your number 2 seeds to the second round as well.
  • If you’re feeling really bold, then you might pick a number 14 seed to upset a number 3 seed. After all, #14 Mercer knocked out #3 Duke in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. (Clearly I’m not an unbiased journalist when it comes to sports-Go Heels!) Correctly picking a 14 seed over a 3 seed will definitely give your bracket an edge, since not many people go for upsets on these. However, if you’re the “play it safe” type, I would stick with picking all of your #3 seeds to advance to round two.
  • The 4 vs. 13, 5 vs. 12, and 6 vs. 11 matchups are where things get really interesting. Each year, there’s usually a #12 team that beats a #5 team in the first round, as well as a #11 team that beats a #6. It’s also not unusual for a #13 seed to beat a #4 seed. I recommend picking at least one #12 seed and one #11 seed to advance to the second round. If you fill out your bracket on ESPN, they give little tidbits about each team in the first round matchups that can help guide you with your picks!
  • Finally, the 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9 matchups are a toss-up. There isn’t as much disparity between the two teams playing in each of these first-round games. Thus, it’s more likely the outcome will go either way. So take your pick, and honestly flip a coin if you have no idea!

Tips for Second Round Picks in Your March Madness Bracket

It’s more difficult to give specific advice on how to pick the winners of the second round games because some of it depends on what teams you pick in the first round. However, here are a few general pointers:

More often than not, the number 1 seed in each region survives the second round and advances to the Sweet 16. However, your bracket will definitely get some brownie points if you take a chance and correctly pick an 8/9 seed to knock out a 1 seed.

At the end of round two, you will have four teams left in each region. However, these will most likely not be seeds 1-4 in each region, so use your best judgement guessing which teams with higher number seeds are likely to shake things up.

While it’s probably not a good idea to have tons of double digit seeds advancing to the Sweet 16, it’s definitely very common for at least a couple double digit seeds to be in the Sweet 16. When a double digit seed that no one expected to make past the first round goes on to the Sweet 16, this is known as a “Cinderella team.”

Tips for Making Picks for the Final Four

Once you are left with your Sweet 16 predictions, you have fewer teams and match-ups to contend with. However, it’s even more difficult for me to give specific advice at this point, because so many unpredictable things can happen during the first weekend of the tournament. I will say that it’s very rare that all four number 1 seeds make it to the Final Four. When filling out your bracket, I would have at least one or two of the number 1 seeds in your Final Four. But I would mix it up and have some other number seeds in your Final Four as well. It’s very common for the Final Four to have #2 and #3 seeds as well. And it’s definitely not unheard of for even higher seeds to make it!

Have Fun!

I hope that you found this post helpful and that it gave you a better understanding of the format of March Madness. Hopefully you got some good pointers for how to fill out your March Madness bracket as well. Maybe you can even be a little competitive in your office bracket pool this year. However, if thinking about seed numbers gives you a headache, you can always just pick your winners based on team colors or mascots. One of my work friends does this every year, and there’s zero shame in that! Most importantly, have fun!

Have you ever filled out a March Madness bracket before? Do you plan to fill out one this year? For more  March Madness-themed posts, check out this one I wrote previously. Although March Madness is just a game, the “survive and advance” mentality of it reminds me a lot of life sometimes! Also, if you’re looking for an easy snack to make for munching while watching basketball, try these savory pretzels.

Plus, don’t forget that you can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. You can also subscribe to my e-newsletter here. Also, if you know someone who would enjoy this post, please share with them!

-xoxo Liz

Hey Y'all!

I'm Liz- and I'm here to inspire you to embrace the simple joys in life and encourage you to be your authentic self!

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